People are increasingly living off the Web and living connected 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The gating factors that hold this back arent processing power, storage capacity, or graphics but network speed and access.
We live in a world increasingly defined by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google while the devices we tend to get the most excited about (when we have money to spend) are devices like Kindles, Netbooks, and iPhones. Our applications are more and more often coming from things like online application stores and not packaged software.
We want experiences that are closer to what we get with a TV (we turn it on and it works) and are increasingly threatened by attackers who want to steal our identities. We are in the early days of a massive change in personal computing and it may not be connected that tightly to Intel or Microsoft this times around.
The Emergence of the ARM CPU
As I write this Im at a tech industry analyst conference where a bunch of us are brought into a room under heavy security and we share what we know about the market and compare notes.
Much of what is discussed I cant talk about, but the overall sense is that ARM (a power-saving CPU), in a huge number of diverse forms, will shortly be popping up in Netbooks and will have notebooks, desktops, and even servers in its sights.
What ARM brings to the table is performance optimized for battery life. My more processor-focused peers are arguing that they have seen solutions in late development from ARM that outperformed existing Netbook offerings, which used integrated graphics, by a significant margins.
They do this with vastly lower purchase costs, better thermal performance (think thinner, cooler), and vastly lower energy use.
The problem with ARM is compatibility. But that may not matter shortly.
Android and Apple: Changing the Game
If we really look at the iPhone and the Android G1, and I mean step back and take a hard look at them, they represent the next generation of personal computer.
Both products are better connected, run more interesting applications, are more visually rich, and are generally more capable in areas folks want capability than PCs were a decade ago.
Granted you wont write the great American novel on them but people who use them have these devices with them when they have a PC, and when they dont. And we called the Blackberry a Crackberry for a reason. They are all very addictive in use.
They live off the Web and increasingly something we call the cloud and fill up these devices from a wonderful thing called an application store, which we can access and buy from wherever we are. We like this and the vendor, who makes money from every transaction (of non-free product), makes a percentage. Even with free products the vendor makes a little something from any related advertising.
The interfaces are next generation touch and not only showcase very well, but they are also intuitive and easy to use. Ive had people demonstrate that their 4 year olds can easily navigate an iPhone (which generally comes right before an oh crap, my kid broke my phone moment).
The point being that, right now, these devices in many ways are leading the PC market in a number of critical leading technologies.
The idea of the Netbook was that it would live off the Web, but the way the vast majority use it now is like a little notebook.
They have OK performance, 60GB or better hard drives, and Wi-Fi. They are, in terms of performance, in line with notebooks of about 2 years ago unless they run the NVIDIA Ion graphics, in which case they can outperform, in some ways, notebooks that are much more current.
But they dont live off the Web; they are small notebooks that, while a great value, dont really address the promise of the Netbook.
What Google and Apple are rumored to be developing, along with ARM, is a real class of Netbook computers. Similar in size to the existing Netbooks, but with less expensive internal parts, a much higher reliance on the network, and an experience that is closer to an iPhone or G1 than to a current notebook computer.
The key gating problem is WAN, and right now 3G, isnt that affordable and Wi-Fi isnt available enough to really make the result work as well as it needs to.
But that is coming.
4G: The Gating Factor
Right now the reason 3G data isnt less expensive is because the networks are saturated.
If you dont have enough of something than lowering the price of that something is stupid and there isnt enough bandwidth for most of the large wireless networks to drive a lower subscription price.
But with the next generations of wireless, bandwidth is supposed to come up sharply. We have been discussing that the inflection point is probably sometime around 2011, when much of the market will have low cost wireless broadband.
Once this occurs the concept of ultra thin, ultra inexpensive, ultra connected true Netbooks becomes vastly more interesting.
Kiss your Non-connected Life Goodbye
Intel and Microsoft are looking at a coming inflection point. Now, both have solutions they can roll to address this, but both will worry a great deal about cannibalization of higher priced offerings. And, Microsoft in particular would need to address this risk much like they did with .NET, as a company, and Bill Gates isnt there to drive this anymore.
Typically every 10 years leaders in technology market change. Both Intel and Microsoft have been unique in that they have held through two cycles. The interesting question will be: do they hold through the third?
Regardless we are going to see some really interesting changes in what we can buy over the next several years and if you thought you were addicted to your Blackberry, wait until you see what is coming. You can kiss your non-connected life goodbye.